Critically Unpacking Language and Representation Biases, and Cheerleading Young Artists
Art cookies. I remember in elementary school there was an art and craft teacher and she came in and gave us cookies that were in the shape of an ear. We got to decorate them in Vincent Van Gogh themes, and I thought that was very cool. I remember doing fun crafts and being very drawn to that. I also did stage design in high school and played marimba in a marching band. But my first museum art experience was going to the Met. I grew up in New Jersey and I remember thinking at the time “that space is really big”!
Giving visibility to artists. When I was in grad school, I knew I wanted to be involved in the arts, and I was trying a bunch of things, interning at auction houses and museums. I had a lot of classes with MFAs, and when we would do gallery visits I remember they would asks artist-kind-of-questions—about practices and material, but me I was asking the gallery owner, how do you select your artists? what are you looking for when you are doing your studio visits? I felt artists weren’t necessarily asking the right questions, questions that would get them paid when they finished school. My degree was in art business, with a background in contemporary art, and I felt that the best thing I could do for artists was to put together a group show for them, something they could put on their resume. I was about to finish the semester and I asked my mentor how to do a show, and they told me a list of tasks (find a space, do labels etc.). With a friend we did it in about a month and a half, and my friend said: you just curated a show, and I said: that was that? It was so much fun. For me it’s about giving visibility to the artists, that’s how I got into curating.
Representation. I really like working in museums, just because I like to work in an institution that has that kind of financial stability, more than galleries. I like to be able to bring more people in the museum, especially people of color, to see more of a reflection and representation of them on the walls. Growing up, I could not see myself in the usual art spaces, and as I keep going I don’t see many people of color visiting or being part of the staff. I want to be here so people and children who are visiting realize, “Oh, there is a Black female curator in this space”!
I took the job at the California African American Museum (CAAM) because I love its mission and giving back to the African American community. When I started they were changing towards a more aggressive approach to show contemporary art, opening a show about the 1992 LA riots by Tyree Boyd-Pates for instance. I wanted to be a part of that.
Sharing art with non-art crowds. Growing up in New Jersey, I often felt misunderstood because I was part of the art crowd, I wasn’t listening to popular music or Jay-Z, but rather to alternative rock and Radiohead. I didn’t necessarily found my own community of color until after college, but I want to share the work that I am doing with my childhood community and family. They get very excited but not always comfortable with arts, they don’t feel that it’s reachable for them, even if they are curious. I want to share with them that we can do both, be from New Jersey and go to the opera.
I am really attracted to larger ideas of semiotics, coded messages, and language, in print or visually, for me it comes from my undergraduate degree in public relations and journalism. I always was fascinated in decoding images of mass representation and media. One show that relates to that was, Making Mammy, in 2019/2020, about a caricature of Black Womanhood. I looked at those themes a little bit within that show. That was a very personal exhibition for me. Looking at these ideas of stereotypes, I wanted to know how they were created, who did they serve, and who did they hurt. That caricature of this overweight asexual domestic woman, often the comic relief in films and cartoons, I wanted to know more. I looked into Gone With The Wind or Aunt Jemima, the pancake mix (they changed the name and packaging recently). I have a love-hate relationship with the Mammy, she does give off this warm maternal feel about her, but what she represents is very polarizing. With this exhibition I wanted to revisit all the stereotypical images that are out there, more than race and gender, but also geography. It’s important to think a little more critically, because at the end of the day it’s about power and control.
What’s on the horizon. The way I blend my values with those of CAAM is by keeping up with new emerging artists. At the museum, when we look at shows I need to make sure these artists know how to fill a big space, which is not always the case with emerging artists. Before the pandemic I would always go to open studios and graduation shows, just to get a better sense and idea of what’s on the horizon. I tell them to keep me posted, to share their information. It’s difficult in the art world, it can be very disheartening, especially when you come from a community of people of color. Whenever they ask me for a letter of recommendation when they are applying for a grant, I say: “yes! I can easily do that for you, I want to be your cheerleader”.
Working with a team for me means hearing everybody’s feedback, that includes exhibition designers, registrars, textile conservators…Just because I want everyone to understand that we are all in this together, and think about how we can make it happen and make it look good.
For my current show, Rights and Rituals: The Making of African American Debutante Culture, I wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes of these debutante balls, how do they work, beyond the very performative parties, how does membership works? what does it cost to participate? how are those people selected? I started to find more about the history of this balls, from their origins in Europe to those in America, and to see the role that African American Debutante played. Their focus was always on education and community service, so even though they were teaching young women how to set a table, they were also teaching them how to apply for colleges. There are just so many stories, it’s hard to choose one, but say the main hook in the exhibition is that on November 18, 1961, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and governor Pat Brown came to a Los Angeles Chapter of The Links, Incorporated’s Cotillion to greet the ladies, and it was the first time that a sitting president came to a minority social function on the West Coast. I wanted to know how this happened. One of the debutantes became the first Black female librarian at the Los Angeles public library, another was the first Black woman to graduate from USC dental school and become a dentist, and later she opened up a hotel, and later became one of the biggest fundraisers for The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They weren’t just part of a social or bridge club, as they were described at the time, they were much more than that.
A book that I always go back to is “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, I read it every summer. I have been doing that for the last five years now. I really like this transcendental movement that happened then in the East Coast, at the time when everything was modernizing. Whitman was taking a step back and connecting with the space around him. I like to read it, listen to the birds and be more mindful of the space.
The California African American Museum is in the Exposition Park, it’s where they held the Olympics back in the ‘80s. It’s close to many other institutions, for instance we are across the University of Southern California. But my favorite place to hang out is in the rose park, that’s where I would read Whitman.
For fun I still love doing art things, going to galleries, museums, art fairs… My social circle is also very much into the arts, but I also like old movies and going to movie houses and watch those movies together with other people. Growing up, I worked at Center Charge which was connected to the Lincoln Center and I got free tickets for ballet and opera, I loved that job for that. Now I am getting more into symphonies. I love doing those things. I also have a dog, her name is Odette, and we like to go for hikes together.
If I were a collector…I really love minimal and conceptual art, so I would collect Richard Serra, if money wasn’t an issue and if I had a big piece of land. But of course I would also invest in artists of color, all of them. Since I can’t do that, I try to talk to them, build a relationship and tell everybody that they should get their work, since I can’t.
If I wasn’t curating I would want to be a linguist. Just really think about how language is created, I would really want to learn and share that, and do Ted Talks, be more of a teacher and teach linguistics.
Curator at California African American Museum (CAAM)
Los Angeles, CA, USA
Taylor Bythewood-Porter has served as assistant curator at California African American Museum (CAAM) since 2017. She is the curator of the museum’s current exhibition Rights and Rituals: The Making of African American Debutante Culture.
Bythewood-Porter co-curated the CAAM exhibitions Cross Colours: Black Fashion in the 20th Century (2020), The Liberator: Chronicling Black Los Angeles, 1900–1914 (2019), California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865 (2018), and Los Angeles Freedom Rally, 1963 (2018), and also contributed to How Sweet the Sound: The History of Gospel Music in Los Angeles (2018), Circles and Circuits 1: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora (2017), and Lezley Saar: Salon des Refúse (2017).
Prior to Bythewood-Porter’s appointment at CAAM she served as president and a founding member of SIA Curates, a curatorial organization run through Sotheby’s Institute of Art at Claremont Graduate University that connects aspiring curators with Claremont’s MFA students to develop yearly exhibitions. Bythewood-Porter is also the recipient of the 2018 Travel Scholarship to attend the Association of African American Museums (AAAM) conference and a participant in the Independent Curators International (ICI) Curatorial Intensive New Orleans 2019.
She holds a Master of Arts in art business with a concentration in contemporary art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art at Claremont Graduate University and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications with a focus on public relations and journalism and a minor in art history from Monmouth University.